Susan Dalgety: America's Last Stand? Irn-Bru in Montana is sign of hope

Despite Donald Trump's views about immigrants, the US was built by different peoples working together, writes Susan Dalgety.
25th June 1876:  General George Armstrong Custer (1839 - 1876) and the men of the US 7th Cavalry are surrounded and massacred by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn, Montana.  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)25th June 1876:  General George Armstrong Custer (1839 - 1876) and the men of the US 7th Cavalry are surrounded and massacred by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn, Montana.  (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
25th June 1876: General George Armstrong Custer (1839 - 1876) and the men of the US 7th Cavalry are surrounded and massacred by Sioux and Cheyenne Indians at the Battle of Little Big Horn, Montana. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

People from every corner of the globe have made the United States of America their home.

There are up to 25 million Scots Americans, a further 30 million Scots-Irish, three-and-a-half million – and rising – new Americans from India.

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The biggest cohort are German-Americans, with 46 million people claiming German ancestry. Including, of course, one Donald J Trump, whose grandfather came from Bavaria.

Though, for reasons known only to himself, the President claimed for years that his father’s family were Swedish.

Folk from Malawi, from Nepal, from Ukraine have settled here, and despite Trump’s best efforts, people keep coming, lured by the shining promise of the American dream.

And then there are five million Native Americans, or American Indians as many prefer to be called, a people whose ancient way of life was all but destroyed when white settlers from Europe decided to make the fertile lands of North America their home.

Around a quarter now live on “the rez”, land managed by tribal elders. The rest gradually migrated to the cities such as New York, Minneapolis or Denver.

Life is tough for many of America’s native people. One in ten die from alcohol-related illness. Thirty per cent live in poverty, with the number rising to nearly 90 per cent in some reservations.

And there is a dearth of Native American role models to match the cultural and political impact of Beyoncé and Barack Obama.

Major, a Northern Cheyenne, lives in Helena, the small, but beautiful capital of Montana. “Welcome to our shop,” he smiles as we climb the stairs to the Sage and Oats Trading Post.

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We look around quickly, at the traditional Cheyenne drums, the hand-made dolls, the cans of Irn-Bru.

“Irn-Bru?” laughs my husband, as he pokes the display, suspiciously. He’s from Stoke.

“We get it online,” explains Michelle, Major’s vivacious wife, who is Irish Scots American. “Larkin on one side, and Campbell on the other,” she explains.

“It sells well, one of the local attorneys really likes it, comes in for regular supplies. Does it really cure hangovers?” she laughs.

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Michelle and Major’s shop showcases the best of America. “We have gathered a collection of all the different goods that celebrate the diversity and history of Montana,” explains Michelle. “Yes, even Irn-Bru.”

“That’s what’s so great about our country. It was built on immigration, on people from all over the world coming together to build a new one. We want to celebrate that. Our slogan is let’s be different together.”

As talk turned to Trump and illegal aliens, Major, laughing, said, “If my people had been able to choose which new settlers were allowed in, as the government does now, then maybe things would have been much better for all of us.”

If he had been working for the Cheyenne Homeland Security in the 1800s, he may well have stopped people from my ancestral home, Ireland, from entering, and with good reason.

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“General Custer’s army was made up largely of Irish and German enlisted men,” boomed the park ranger at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, a few miles south of Helena.

“Many could not speak English, but they had been told it was their God-given right to move west.

“And the Lakota warriors were determined to protect their families, and their ancient way of life. Everyone involved thought they were fighting for the right reasons.”

It is hard to feel too much sympathy for the Kelly, O’Connor and McElroy boys who had escaped their own colonial masters, only to help steal land from the Lakota people.

But standing on Last Stand Hill, where 260 soldiers were killed one sunny June day in 1876, I can almost feel their fear as they faced certain death at the hands of Sitting Bull’s triumphant army of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors.

Custer’s last stand turned out to be the last stand for Sitting Bull too. He surrendered to the US Army five years after his famous victory and was killed by the police at the Standing Rock reservation in 1890.

The violent death of warriors such as Limber Bones and Closed Hand at Little Bighorn turned out to be a pointless sacrifice as their people retreated to the reservations. A noble people, who had once roamed freely across America, were now strangers in their own land.

As we left Little Bighorn, we drove through the Crow Reservation. The scattered, shabby mobile home communities we saw were a far cry from the tribe’s ancestral villages, full of beautifully decorated tipis.

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The reservation’s main source of income, the Absaloka coal mine, has all but disappeared. Last year, two thirds of the pit’s workers were laid off, forcing Crow leaders to lobby President Trump to ease environmental rules and extend the Indian coal tax breaks.

“I don’t want to be that poor again that I will live on deer meat,” said one after a meeting at the White House.

But it seems Trump has more pressing matters to consider than the future of the Crow Nation.

“All the President’s men are crooked!” shrieked a veteran political commentator on Tuesday night. And, for once, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews was not guilty of hyperbole.

Within minutes of each other, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen had admitted eight fraud charges and his ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort was found guilty on eight more.

Both men face long prison terms. And both men could bring down Trump.

Cohen has already started singing, implicating the President in campaign finance fraud, and he seems desperate to share even more of Trump’s guilty secrets. Manafort, in his prison cell, has so far remained resolutely tight-lipped.

The White House insists the President did nothing wrong, and his latest lawyer, the loquacious Rudy Giuliani, bellows from a Scottish golf course: “He’s innocent!”

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The history of modern America is strewn with stories of heroes and villains. From Sitting Bull to Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King to Joe McCarthy.

Its people fled from war, persecution and poverty to build the world’s biggest economy. They survived a bloody civil war. They overcame segregation. They put the first man on the moon.

But can the American dream survive the nightmare that is Donald J Trump?